'American Horror Story: Cult' Stars Say Politics Was Scarier Subject Matter Than Clowns

Sarah Paulson, Billy Eichner, Leslie Grossman and more spoke to The Hollywood Reporter at a panel for the seventh season of 'American Horror Story' moderated by Ryan Murphy himself.
Courtesy of FX

Ryan Murphy had planned to tackle the cult of personality surrounding politics in the seventh season of American Horror Story even before the 2016 election rolled around. But, the creator told the audience at an Emmy FYC panel at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills on Friday night, that he knew that's where he wanted to begin right after election night.

That meant AHS: Cult was one of the first scripted series to tackle the election in a meaningful way. Star Sarah Paulson told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet before the panel — which Murphy himself moderated — that she and her costars thought that maybe they'd already worked through their feelings about the election by the time they began filming Cult. They were wrong, she said.

"By the time we were shooting ... we all thought that maybe we were not over it, but in a place where having to access this would be sort of easy," she said. "But we all kind of felt, as we were watching the tape, it was just really hard to believe that it happened. And it just felt way too fresh. Too soon to be reenacting it with a sense of safety for your internal well-being. But instead, it was like, nope, go in there and pick at it."

AHS newcomers Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman both told THR that while they found the season fun and fulfilling creatively, it was tough subject matter to tackle.

"From the perspective of dealing with Trump, it's one of those things that's like, if you don't deal with it on some level then your work can feel irrelevant, because it's the thing that's on everyone's mind in the media all the time nowadays," Eichner said. "It's such a huge story and it's impacting our lives on a personal level, on a sociopolitical level. If you don't deal with it, you kind of feel like you might be irrelevant, and if you do deal with it, well, you have to have a fresh take on it because there are so many people with their take on it 24/7, on TV, and on Twitter, and everywhere, so it's challenging."

He continued, "I really love that Ryan just got in there, the way he always does, and just had huge balls, the way he always does, and jumped into the conversation. I actually think our season of American Horror Story, it's obviously a horror, but for me, in a good way, it made me laugh a lot, because I really think it was ultimately a satire of the insane, and absurd, and highly charged time that we're living in."

But there were certainly parts of the season — particularly for Grossman, whose character commits a mass shooting — that were uncomfortable and difficult to get through.

"The day that I got that script was the day that the Republican baseball team was fired on," the actress, who has worked with Murphy since his 1999 show Popular, told THR. "I remember thinking to myself, 'There is going to be another one of these, and I wonder if it's going to be before or after this episode airs.' And Las Vegas happened just a couple of days before the episode aired. So, that's upsetting."

She continued, "I'm not afraid of clowns; I don't have phobias; I'm not afraid of all that stuff. I'm afraid of gun violence, so confronting that directly was uncomfortable. And when I shot that scene, the first take, I thought I was going to throw up. There was a minute or two when my heart was pounding, I broke into a cold sweat, and then I gathered myself and kind of got myself together. But it's much scarier to do the real stuff than over-the-top horror stuff."

After walking the short red carpet, Paulson, Eichner, Grossman and their costars Adina Porter, Cheyenne Jackson and Evan Peters were grilled by Murphy himself, who eschewed the idea of a moderator for the panel, about their time filming the season.

The crowd, who had just watched the season finale — where (spoiler alert) Peters' cult leader was outsmarted by Paulson's victim-turned-politician — listened to anecdotes from set (production, Murphy noted, all took place late at night, prompting him to suggest "French hours" for season eight) and confessions from Eichner in particular about how the showrunner saw something in them that others in Hollywood hadn't seen before.

During the screening, the audience ate sandwiches from "The Butchery" (a.k.a. the restaurant Paulson's character owned in Cult), and after the panel — where Murphy also revealed that all six actors would be returning for the newest season, and that Paulson and Peters would make their directorial debuts in the near future-set season — the crowd grazed on desserts and beer and wine in the lobby while rubbing elbows with the stars.